Downton Abbey: People Talk

Warning: This article contains spoilers about the seventh episode of Downton Abbey’s fourth season.

Each week, Christ and Pop Culture will present an analysis of the latest Downton Abbey episode after it airs on PBS.

Episode One: Downton Abbey: A Job Well Done.

Episode Two: Downton Abbey: Things We’ve Lost.

Episode Three: Downton Abbey: Bring the Light.

Episode Four: Downton Abbey: All in the Family.

Episode Five: Downton Abbey: Means to an End?

Episode Six: Downton Abbey: Guilt, Shame, and the Fear of Confession.

This past week packed plenty of incident into Downton Abbey. As Cora plans the big church bazaar (sans Robert, who only returns from America at the end), plenty is happening under her nose. Rose plans on marrying Jack Ross, who knows himself it can never work, while Aunt Rosamund unsuccessfully schemes to get pregnant Edith out of the country well in advance of her delivery date. Bates seems suspicious of Green, and we are left to wonder if Anna’s worst fears have been realized when it is revealed that Green died “accidentally” before Gillingham could fire him at Mary’s request. Mary herself is juggling suitors left and right, while in the servants’ quarters, Ivy turns down Alfred’s marriage proposal and Daisy mends her friendship with him before his departure.

Of the many themes that could be teased out of this week’s Downton Abbey, one of the most striking is the power of words to hurt or to heal, to cut down or to build up. This power is acknowledged in Scripture on countless occasions. Genesis 1 describes the very act of creation as deriving through the medium of God’s spoken word, and building on this, John affirms Jesus as the Word (logos). According to Proverbs 15, “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly… A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (verses 2, 4). James 3 famously warns against the dangers of unchecked speech, asserting “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (verse 6). And in Ephesians, Paul warns congregations, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (4:29).

The destructive power of words is subtly evident in this episode. Last week, Jewel Evans wrote for Christ and Pop Culture about the ways in which characters like Anna and Edith struggle with the potential stigma of societal shame, making it excruciating for them to turn in trusting confession to others. Whether or not there is a role for shame in the public sphere, it can often be linked to an activity frequently condemned in the Bible: gossip. People talk, word gets out, and the reputations of others can be destroyed, whether or not they have even committed any transgression, simply by the power of words. In this week’s episode, the most obvious instance of the corrosion inherent in public gossip is the dissolution of Rose’s relationship with Jack Ross. While she may have sought to marry him partly out of spite for her old-fashioned mother, Rose clearly felt real affection for the African-American singer. In conversation with Mary, Ross chooses to forego his relationship precisely so that he can spare Rose the vitriol of people’s comments at seeing them together.

Ironically, that conversation — in which the aristocratic Mary and the socially stigmatized Jack Ross demonstrate profound respect for one another — demonstrates the salutary effect that carefully considered affirming words can have. Good words are even more apparent in the burgeoning relationship between Baxter and Molesley. The ever-proud Molesley, who has found his stature in life diminished, takes the initiative to speak to Baxter and draw her into conversation. She, in turn, encourages him during the church bazaar; her words literally give him strength, as he is able to outdo young fellow servant Jimmy in hammering away at the Strength-O-Meter. Their relationship also has the potential to draw Baxter away from Thomas, who corruptly manipulates language more than any other character on the show; it is little wonder Robert laments having to spend a trip abroad in his company.

But perhaps the most poignant example of words well-chosen this week comes in Daisy’s storyline. For weeks, we have seen the drama of the Alfred-Daisy-Ivy triangle, and Alfred’s proposal to Ivy seemed poised to create a conflagration of female passion. Instead, however, we see Daisy at her finest. Her lovable father-in-law Mr. Mason counsels her to set things right with Alfred while she has the opportunity. And so, what had initially seemed a perfect storm of escalating tensions becomes a tender moment when Daisy sets aside her jealousy and anger, offering kind words and a gift to Alfred. And Alfred, who has ever been thoughtful and gentle in his speech, responds graciously. Supported by the wise counsel of her father figure, Daisy is able to use words for healing; and in easily the episode’s most moving scene, the maternal Mrs. Patmore affirms Daisy’s decision by saying, “Do you know, when you brought up that basket, I was so proud of you, I felt like crying out. If you were my own daughter, I couldn’t be prouder than I am now.”

The biblical admonitions to watch our words are no less relevant today than when they were first delivered; on the contrary, in a society in which words are thrown about cheaply in great quantity, our responsibility to salutary language — language that builds up, that encourages, that strengthens, that helps others become more than what they were — is all the more pressing. Downton Abbey shows the ways in which our careful and sensitive use of our words can benefit others, and, ultimately, be used in service to the body of Christ, the Word.

Photo via PBS.

About Geoffrey Reiter

Geoffrey Reiter is Assistant Professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida. He holds a B.A. in English from Nyack College and a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University, along with an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.


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